Behar: Slave Owners

May 21, 2019 at 11:55 pm | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment

Shmitah Observance in Palestine, by Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, 1924

Every seventh year is the shmitah year, the year of letting things drop, according to this week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”).  That year the owners of fields must let them lie fallow, and the owners of vineyards must leave them unpruned, so the land can rest.

It will be a sabbath for the land; [its] food  is [only] for eating, for you yourself, and for your aved, and for your amah, and for your hired laborer [who is] resident with you.  And for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land, they shall all come in to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

aved (עָבֶד) = a male slave or a servant.  (From the root verb avad, עָבַד = slaved, served, labored.)

Slave (noun) = a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.

Servant (noun) = a person employed to perform duties for others, especially in a house, [or] a devoted and helpful follower.1

amah (אָמָה) = a female slave or a servant.

The list of people who can eat the produce of a field or vineyard during the seventh year includes the owner and his family, his male and female slaves, and his employees who live with him (as well as his livestock and any wild beasts that wander in).

Although the Torah uses the same word for a slave and a servant, whether male or female, native or foreign, in this passage the slaves are listed separately from the free employees who serve the master to earn wages.

Egyptian beating a slave

Slavery is an accepted part of society in the Torah, as it was throughout the ancient Near East.  In Exodus/Shemot, all the Israelites are slaves in Egypt until God rescues them and leads them through the wilderness.  In Exodus alone, God gives them more than a hundred laws at Mt. Sinai, from the Ten Commandments to case law such as:

If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod and in the seventh he shall leave free, without charge.  (Exodus 21:2)

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he shall serve.  (A form of the verb avad, עָבַד  = served or slaved.)

In other words, one can only acquire fellow Hebrews or Israelites as an indentured servants: debtors who are forced to work for their masters for a fixed period of time.  At the end of that time, they are free.  Israelites acquired their countrymen as indentured servants when impoverished men sold themselves or impoverished parents sold their children.  These temporary slaves could be redeemed at any time by a kinsman who paid off their owner.  If they were not redeemed, Exodus says, they must be given the option of freedom after six years.   (See my post Mishpatim: On Slavery.)

The lawgiving at Mt. Sinai continues in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and returns to the subject of slavery in this week’s Torah portion.

And if your kinsman with you becomes poor and is sold to you, lo ta-avod him at the avodah of an aved.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 25:39)

lo ta-avod (לֺא תַעֲבֺד) = you may not enslave, you may not force to work.  (From the root verb avad.)

avodah (עֲבֺדַה) = service, labor for another.  (Also from the root verb avad.)

In other words, you may not force a fellow Israelite to do the work of a foreign slave.  Israelite slaves must be treated like hired employees who live in the master’s household.  According to Sifra, that means their owner must provide them and their wives and children with food as well as lodging, and assign them work in a craft they already know.2   This week’s Torah portion prohibits charging indentured servants for their food and adding it to the debt they are working off.3

He shall become like a hired worker, like a temporary worker living with you.  Until the year of the yoveil, ya-avod you.  (Leviticus 25:40)

yoveil (יֺּבֵל) = ram; the year of remission, which comes every 50 years and is announced by the blowing of a ram’s horn.  (Called the “jubilee” in English.)

At this point, the law in Leviticus appears to disagree with the law in Exodus.  Leviticus says all Israelite slaves in the country must be freed every 50 years; Exodus says each Israelite slave must be freed after he has served for six years.

In the 11th century CE, Rashi wrote that an Israelite slave was freed either after his own six years of service were completed, or on the yoveil year, whichever came first.4

In the 19th century, S.R. Hirsch wrote that the slave who decided to remain with his master “forever” instead of being freed in the seventh year (Exodus 21:5-6) was nevertheless freed when either his master died, or the yoveil year began, whichever came first.5

But 21st-century translator and commentator Robert Alter wrote that the books of Exodus and Leviticus simply disagree on when an unredeemed Israelite slave must be freed.6  The Exodus version guarantees that after six years every Israelite slave can choose whether to go free or become a permanent slave.  The Leviticus version guarantees that when all Israelite slaves are freed in the yoveil year, they can go home to their own families’ plots of land, which are returned that year to the families that originally owned them.7

Then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and he shall return to his clan and to the property of his forefathers.  (Leviticus 25: 41)

*

Even if Israelites sell themselves to resident aliens rather than to their fellow Israelites, their kinsmen have the option of redeeming them paying their master their purchase price.  And if no one redeems them, then they, too, must be released in the yoveil year.8

If he is not redeemed in these ways, then he shall leave in the year of the yoveil, he and his children with him.  Because the Israelites are avadim to me, my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God.  (Leviticus 25:54-55)

avadim (עֲבַדִים) = slaves, servants.  (Plural of aved.)

Why must all Israelites who have sold themselves be freed, even if they have to wait up to 49 years?  Rashi wrote that “Because the Israelites are avadim to me” (Leviticus 25:55) means: “My contract came before.”9

An aved cannot have two masters.  And all Israelites are God’s servants, even God’s slaves.  Treating Israelites that you bought as if they were your exclusive property forever would violate God’s previous claim as their ultimate owner—and yours.

Assyrian army of Tiglath-Pilesar leads captives

*

A foreign slave, on the other hand, is permanent property, and can even be inherited.  The usual practice in the ancient Near East was to enslave foreigners captured in battle.

And your aved and your amah from the nations around you that became yours, from them you may acquire eved and amah.  And also you may acquire [slaves] from the children of the alien residents among you, and from their families they gave birth to while among you in your land.  And they shall become yours as property.  And you may bequeath them to your children after you to inherit as property forever …  (Leviticus 25:44-46)

The book of Leviticus does not think of non-Israelites as God’s people.  Anyone who does not serve the God of Israel can become a permanent slave of a human master.

*

In the United States, what made the difference between permanent slaves and temporary indentured servants was not religion or ethnicity, but “race”.  Until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 banned slavery, native Africans and their descendants, as well as some Native Americans, were seized and enslaved, resold, and inherited by European-Americans.  Their owners might choose to free them, but like the foreign slaves in the Torah, they had no right of redemption, nor a right to release after any number of years of service.  Impoverished Europeans and their American children could sell themselves as indentured servants, bound to obey their masters’ whims only until their contracts expired.

Today slavery is officially illegal everywhere in the world, but there are still millions of people who are acquired or inherited as property and forced to obey their owners.

What if we stopped separating people into “us” and “them”?  What if we had a God of Everybody, instead of a God of Israel or a God of (fill in the blank)?  What if we came to believe that all human beings are holy?  Would slavery disappear?

  1. Both definitions are from Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Sifra (a 3rd-century CE collection of legal commentary on Leviticus), Behar Chapter 7, translated in sefaria.org/Sifra%2C_Behar%2C_Chapter_7.3?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  3. Leviticus 25:37.
  4. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Leviticus 25:40, translated at chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9965.
  5. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 21:6, translated by Daniel Haberman in The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 370.
  6. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 658.
  7. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  8. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  9. Rashi, ibid., on Leviticus 25:55.

Emor: Libations

May 15, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Emor, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it?  If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1  Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar.  All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2

But what about an offering of wine?  How does God receive a libation?

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought.  The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3  The instructions for two of them include libations.

On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”

and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin.  (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)

nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation.  Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים.  (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)

A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine.  The passage does not say where the wine is poured.

At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.

And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God.  And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God.  (Leviticus 23:18)

Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering?  If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain.  The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.

The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:

These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day.  (Leviticus 23:37)

*

Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.

from Cassell’s Family Bible, 1880

And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)

vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5

vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out.  A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold.  The bible never uses yatzak for wine.

Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles.  In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.

Libation ceremony, Minoan, 1400 BCE, Hagia Triada

Nobody told him to do this.  But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit.  In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6

The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint.  Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—

—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb.  And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God.  (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)

This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God.  A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:

And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)

 *

According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting.  Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.

The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.

And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods.  (Jeremiah 19:13)

vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out.  (A form of the verb nasakh.)

Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8  The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.

I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God.  A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense.  But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.

*

Libation amphora, Second Temple coin

The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem.  There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud.  The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire.  The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.

Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:

“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9

“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)

“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)

Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire.  Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.

Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.

*

Today even our gifts to God are non-material.  We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff.  But what do we donate to God?  Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.

A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.

  1. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
  4. “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
  5. The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25­­ times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
  6. g. www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/libation; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
  7. Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
  8. Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
  9. All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sukkah?lang=bi.

 

Kedoshim: Vilification and Hindrance

May 8, 2019 at 11:39 am | Posted in Kedoshim | Leave a comment

De Vaartkapoen, by Tom Franzen, 1985

You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol; and you must fear your God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:14)

kaleil (קַלֵּל) = curse, belittle, vilify.  (The actual Hebrew is lo (לֺא) = not + tikaleil (תְקַלֵּל) = you will curse, belittle, vilify.)

mikheshol (מִכְשֺׁל or מִכְשׁוֹל) = stumbling-block, obstacle, hindrance.

This commandment appears in what scholars call the “Holiness Code”: Leviticus 18:1-18 in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“holy”).  The Holiness Code presents about 40 commandments, depending on how you count them.  It begins:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  Holy you must be, because holy am I, God, your God.”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)1

The ultimate commandment in the series is:

You shall love your fellow as yourself.  (Leviticus 19:18)

All but one or two of the 40 or so commandments in the Holiness Code are about human interactions.2  While the Ten Commandments are a list of ten important things God wants us to do, the Holiness Code gives instructions on how to be holy through ethical behavior, culminating with loving other people.3

Each rule in the Holiness Code can be analyzed in terms of how it helps us to love others.  “You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikhesholappears to prohibit cruelty against the disabled.  Certainly an obstacle in the path of a blind person could result in physical damage.  The deaf might suffer psychological pain if they found out that someone had vilified them, or saw the angry faces of those cursing them.  But what if they never found out?

No Vilification

The Talmud compares “You must not kaleil the deaf” with an earlier biblical verse: “You must not kaleil God, nor put a curse on a chieftain among your people” (Exodus/Shemot 22:27).  The chieftains were among the most respected members of society, while the deaf are an example of “the most wretched”.  “From the fact that it is prohibited to curse even those people, it can be derived that it is prohibited to curse anyone.”4

According to Sefer Hachinukh, “we do not have the power to know in which way a curse impacts upon the one cursed … we know more generally that people are concerned about curses …”  Therefore curses may indeed have a mysterious effect on their targets.5

Maimonides wrote that the deeper reason for the prohibition is to rescue the person who is inclined to vilify others.  While one person might get revenge against someone who wronged him by “cursing and reviling, because he knows how much hurt and shame this will cause his enemy”, others are satisfied with blowing off steam, “uttering angry imprecations and curses, even though the other would not listen to them if he were present.  It is well known that hot-tempered and choleric persons find relief in this way …”6

by Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1500 CE

Is there anything wrong with this?  Yes, according, to Maimonides.  “Cursing is forbidden [even] in the case of the deaf, since the Torah is concerned not only with the one who is cursed, but also with the curser, who is told not to be vindictive and hot-tempered.”

Vindictive and hot-tempered people might love some of their fellow humans some of the time, but they also are inflamed by hatred.  The Holiness Code instructs them not to act on their hatred, even when they could get away with it.

No Obstruction

Similarly, “you must not place in front of the blind a mikhesholrefers not only to people who are literally blind, but to all people who are metaphorically near-sighted, particularly those who are incompetent, caught up in craving, immoral, or overwhelmed by passion.  They can easily be diverted into doing bad things by a stumbling-block.

Incompetence

Sifra interprets “blind” metaphorically, and says: “If he asks you for advice, do not give him advice that is unfit for him.  Do not say to him ‘Leave early in the morning,” so that robbers should assault him, [or] ‘Leave in the afternoon,’ so that he fall victim to the heat.”7

Those who give bad advice to naïve or slow-witted people in order to harm them may have cooler tempers than those who erupt in curses, but in both cases the perpetrators are treating people they dislike with contempt.

One must not deliberately give bad advice in any circumstance.  But according to Sefer HaChinukh, one must give what one believes is good advice.  “Guiding people and giving them good advice for all of their actions [is needed for] the ordering of the world and its civilization.”8

Craving

The Talmud also applies the prohibition about the blind to offering a cup of wine to a nazirite, someone who has made a vow not to drink wine.9  (See my post Haftarah Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)  20th-century commentator Nehama Leibowitz pointed out that in this case the target “knows that the host’s offer contravenes his Nazirite vow.  There is no deception involved.  The host might plead: Did I force him or command him to drink?  Is he not to take it or refuse it?  But this is not so, the victim being blinded by his passions.”10

Immorality

Similarly, the “blind” person who is already a highwayman or a Jew-hater already knows that if he buys weapons, he is likely to use them to kill.  According to the Talmud, one is forbidden to sell weapons, chains, or weapons-grade iron to either Jewish bandits or hostile gentiles.11  That would be a case of placing a mikheshol in front of someone blinded by immorality.

Passion

The Talmud also counted provoking a dangerous passionate reaction also counts as placing a mikheshol, a hindrance, in front of the blind.  “It was related that the maidservant in Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s house saw a certain man who was striking his adult son.  She said: Let that man be excommunicated, due to the fact that he has transgressed the injunction: You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”  The rabbis agreed, “as the son is likely to become angry and strike his father back, thereby transgressing the severe prohibition against hitting one’s parent.”12

Leibowitz deduced that in this case, “no enticement is involved, but the mere provocation renders the father responsible for his son’s crime.”13

You must fear your God

Thus “You must not kaleil the deaf” means you must not curse, belittle, or vilify anyone, whether your target finds out or not.  Venting your vindictive hatred prevents you from reaching the condition in which you “love your fellow as yourself”.

“You must not place in front of the blind a mikhesholmeans you must not divert anyone into bad behavior.  You are responsible, and therefore guilty, if you do anything that deceives, tempts, encourages, or provokes other people to do things that harm themselves or others.

Why does the Torah add: “and you must fear your God”?  Rashi answers that those who vilify the “deaf” or make the “blind” stumble could plead that they meant well, and did not know their actions would have such awful results.  “Therefore, concerning this, it says, and you must fear your God, who knows your thoughts!14

*

When we vent our hatred, and when we cause others to misbehave, we can plead that we meant well.  We can get away with it, though the more perceptive people around us are likely to either shun us or reprove us.

But we will never be holy, and we will never be able to love our fellows as ourselves.  We will always be constricted by our own narrow-mindedness.  That is punishment enough.

May we all learn to redirect our petty angers and moral carelessness, so that we may all become holy, loving, and free.

  1. See my post Yitro: Not in my Face.
  2. The only rules in Leviticus 19:1-18 that do not directly involve human relationships are the prohibition against idols (Leviticus 19:4), and the requirement that the roasted meat from a wholeness-offering (shelamim) must be eaten within two days (Leviticus 19:5-8). However, the two-day deadline forces the person making the offering to invite guests and household members to eat.
  3. See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.
  4. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 66a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.66a?lang=bi .
  5. Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 231, in sefaria.org/Sefer_HaChinukh?lang=bi. This book explaining 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible was published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century CE.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam), Sefer HaMitzvot (317). Translation from Rabbi J. Kapah, Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1958, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 301.
  7. Sifra, Kedoshim section 2, sefaria.org/Sifra?lang=bi. Sifra is a collection of commentary on Leviticus compiled in the third or fourth century CE.
  8. Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 232, ibid.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 22b, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Pesachim.22b?lang=bi.
  10. Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, translated by Rafael Fisch & Avner Tomaschoff, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 310.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 15b & 16a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Avodah_Zarah?lang=bi.
  12. Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 17a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Moed_Katan?lang=bi.
  13. Leibowitz, ibid.
  14. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, commentary on Leviticus 19:14.

 

Acharey Mot: Azazel

May 1, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

The high priest may only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, according to this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“after the death”).1  On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the high priest must burn incense inside the Holy of Holies and flick the blood of a bull and a goat on the ark.

drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

The bull is a sacrifice from the priests’ own herd, slaughtered to atone for anything he or his household did wrong during the past year.  The goat is one of two goats (se-irim) provided by the Israelite people.  The high priest (Aaron, in this Torah portion) gives one goat to God, burning its body and sprinkling its blood, to make atonement for all the people.2  The other goat carries away all the misdeeds the Israelites committed over the past year.

After the high priest bathes and puts on sacred linen garments,

Then he shall take the two se-irim and stand them in front of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aaron shall place lots on the two se-irim: one lot for God and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aaron shall bring forward the sa-ir for which the lot for God came up, and he shall make it the reparation-offering.  And the sa-ir for which the lot for Azazel came up, it shall stand alive in front of God, to make atonement upon it.  And he shall send it to Azazel in the wilderness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:7-10)

sa-ir (שָׂעִיר) = hairy male goat; long hair; rain shower.  Plural: se-irim (שְׂעִרִם) = goats, goat-demons.

Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) pronounced Azazeil = a proper name.

The name Azazel appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, all three in the passage above.  Commentators have suggested that it is the name of a place, the name of a fallen angel, the name of a desert demon, or a symbol of chaos.

Azazel the cliff

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living sa-ir, and he shall confess over it all the crimes of the Israelites and all their transgressions for all their wrongdoing, and he shall place them on the head of the sa-ir, and send it by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  Then the sa-ir will carry off all the crimes on itself to a cut-off land; he shall send out the sa-ir into the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:21-22)

In the time of the second temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE to 70 CE), the goat for Azazel was led out past seven stations and pushed off a cliff.  It died on the way down, its body broken by rocks.  The Talmud, redacted circa 500 CE but including a few eyewitness accounts from the final years of the second temple, assumed Azazel was the name of the cliff.3  Rashi, writing in the 11th century CE, explained that “a cut-off land” meant a cliff.4

The Talmud offers two proposals for the etymology of the place-name Azazel.  According to the sages Azazel means “rough and hard”, because it combines azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל), one of whose meanings is “strength, power”.  (Therefore the Azazel place is full of rocks.)  But according to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, the cliff is called Azazel “because it atones for the actions of Uza and Asael.  These are the names of sons of God who sinned with daughters of men (Genesis 6:2) and thereby caused the world to sin during the generation of the Flood.” 5

Azazel the fallen angel

Fallen Angel, by Odilon Redon, 19th century

None of “the sons of God” are named in Genesis.  The school of Rabbi Yishmael probably got the names Uza and Asael from a much later story identifying the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 with fallen angels called Watchers.  The earliest extant version of this story appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch written in the third century BCE.  Here Shemyaza and Asael are the two chief leaders of 200 angels who descend to earth, land on Mt. Hermon (in the Golan Heights), and fornicate with human women, producing a race of giants.  Then the book focuses on the actions of Asael, now called Azazel.

And Azazel taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates.  And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all [kinds of] coloured dyes. And the world was changed.  And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.”  (Book of Enoch, 8:1-2) 6

Thus in the Book of Enoch, the fallen angel Azazel not only fornicates with human women, but is responsible for the human evils of war and seduction.  God tells the angel Raphael to bind Azazel’s hands, throw him into darkness, and throw jagged stones on him—reminiscent of the rocks that kill the goat on Yom Kippur during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.

In another apocryphal book, The Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel is a fallen angel who serves as a satanic figure, tempting humans to lie and do evil deeds.  God says:  “Go, Azazel, into the untrodden parts of the earth!”7  This is reminiscent of sending the goat to Azazel in the cut-off land of the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion.

Azazel the desert demon

However, the whole concept of fallen angels was invented several centuries after the book of Leviticus was written.  There are no fallen angels in the Torah.  The Biblical Hebrew word for “angel” is the same as the word for “messenger”, malakh (מַלְאַךְ).  All angels that visit earth are simply God’s mouthpieces.

Azazel, by Colin de Plancy, 1882

Therefore some commentators concluded that the name Azazel in this week’s Torah portion refers not to any kind of angel, but to an ancient desert goat-demon.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites:

They must not slaughter any more of their slaughterings for the se-irim they are whoring after.  This will be a decree forever for them throughout their generations.  (Leviticus 17:7)

The people have not been sacrificing goats to other goats; here se-irim must mean gods or demons in the shape of goats.

The last book of the Hebrew Bible provides one other hint of a goat-god or goat-demon cult.  When the second book of Chronicles retells the story of how King Jereboam builds two temples in the northern kingdom of Israel, it states disapprovingly that he furnished them not only with golden calves, but also with se-irim (2 Chronicles 11:15).8

There may well have been a tradition involving goat-demons in ancient Canaan.  In the 12th century CE, Rambam wrote that some Sabeans worshipped demons who took the form of goats,9  and Ibn Ezra wrote that “lunatics who see these demons experience visions of goat-like creatures”.10

Azazel the symbol of chaos

What if Azazel is neither a place nor a supernatural being, but rather a personified concept?  Let’s look again at the etymology of the word.

The Talmud’s explanation that Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) comes azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל) = “strength, power” is far-fetched, since it requires moving the letter aleph (א).  In Biblical Hebrew, related words often use different vowel sounds, and weak letters may appear and disappear.  But a strong letter such as an aleph is never moved to a different position.

One can, however, divide Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) into az (עז) and azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.  The participle form of azal is ozeil (אֺזֵל) = disappearing.  So Azazel may mean “Disappearing Goat”: eiz (עֵז) = goat, she-goat, goat hair + azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.

21st century translator and commentator Robert Alter used this etymology, and also wrote that the lot for God represents civilization and order, while the lot for Azazel represents wilderness and chaos.  Thus the goat who carries the misdeeds of the Israelites symbolically takes them to the chaos, the tohu and bohu, that was present in Genesis 1:2 before God began creating the universe.11

*

Whether Azazel is a symbol, a demon, a fallen angel, or a place in the wilderness near Jerusalem, the goat (sa-ir) that gets the lot Azazel becomes the goat (eiz) that goes away into a land that is cut off from humans and disappears forever.  What could be better than to have all the crimes the community committed over the past year disappear forever?

Alas, our own wrongdoing does not completely disappear.  Even after we make atonement with God through whatever means our religions offer, we still remember our guilt.  And even if we are conscientious about acknowledging our bad deeds against other people and obtain their forgiveness, our former victims sometimes remember as well.  It is hard not to slip back into guilt or resentment.

But if we remember Azazel as the Disappearing Goat, perhaps we can turn our memories of missing the mark into reminders that humans can change and make new choices.

  1. The opening sentence of this week’s portion is: “God spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who came too close in front of God and died.” This opening underlines the danger of entering the Holy of Holies without permission.  See my post Shemimi: Fire Meets Fire.
  2. See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 67b, William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. After the mating of the “sons of God” and human women in Genesis 6:2, God sees in Genesis 6:5 “that the wickedness of humankind abounds on the earth”, and resolves to destroy everyone except Noah and his family.
  6. Translated by Miryam T. Brand, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, p. 1370.
  7. Apocalypse of Abraham, translated by Alexander Kulik, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, pp. 1465-1466. This apropcryphal book was originally composed in Aramaic in the first or second century CE.
  8. Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel after it secedes, builds two temples with golden calves as idols in 1 Kings 12:28-30.
  9. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46.
  10. 12th-century Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Leviticus.17.7.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  11. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 612-613.

Song of Songs & 2 Isaiah: Love Sacred and Profane

April 24, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Passover/Pesach, Song of Songs | Leave a comment

A single word can mean attraction, desire, passion, affection, or devotion.

In English, that word is “love”.  In Biblical Hebrew, it is ahavah (אַהֲבָה).

Song of Songs, Rothschild machzor, 15th century CE

The noun ahavah and its related verb, ahav (אָהַב), appear eighteen times in The Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the short biblical book that Jews traditionally read during the week of Passover/Pesach.  The first line in this series of interlocking poems sets the tone:

            Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth …  (The Song of Songs 1:2)

Soon the female speaker cries:

            Revive me with raisin cakes,

            Refresh me with quinces,

            Because I am faint with ahavah!  (Song of Songs 2:5)

The book frequently expresses erotic attraction by using metaphors from nature.  The woman’s breasts are compared to twin gazelle fawns, date clusters, grape clusters, and towers.1  In another example, the man says:

            A locked garden is my sister, my bride;

            A locked well, a sealed spring.

            Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

            And choice fruit …  (Song of Songs 4:12-13)

And the woman responds:

            Let my beloved come into his garden,

            And let him eat its choice fruit.  (Songs of Songs 4:16)

What is a book like this doing in the bible?  God is never mentioned in The Song of Songs.  Yet subsequent commentators, including Rashi,2 have argued that the whole book is an allegory for the love between the Israelites and God.

There is a precedent for this analogy.  In the 8th century BCE, Hosea portrayed the northern kingdom of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God.3  After him, several other biblical prophets portrayed the southern kingdom of Judah as God’s unfaithful wife, and the covenant between God and the people as a marriage contract.4  So the idea of using a human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between a people and God was well-known by the third or second century BCE, when The Song of Songs was written.  But the poetry in this book focuses on sexual love, not on the covenant of marriage.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of The Song of Songs in the biblical canon, declaring, “All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”5

Song of Songs, artist unknown

Perhaps some human beings have loved God with an ahavah similar to the sensual yearning of the lovers in The Song of Songs.  Maimonides wrote: “What is the proper form of the love of God?  It is that one should love God with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly … for the whole of Song [of Songs] is a parable on this theme.”6

But it is hard to imagine God loving human beings that way.  Although the Torah presents us with an anthropomorphic God who feels rage, jealousy, and compassion, the God of Israel is different from other ancient Near Eastern gods in that God does not partner with a goddess, and never engages in sex.

Then how does God love humans?  In the Hebrew Bible divine love is not individual, but collective.  God loves the people of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem.  God loves those who follow God’s rules.  The reader is encouraged to be like God and love concepts such as justice and compassion.

The love of God sometimes seems like immature favoritism to a modern reader.  Out of love, God destroys the rivals or enemies of the Israelites.7  When the Israelites are “unfaithful” and worship other gods, God lashes out in jealousy and destroys them, either by afflicting them with plagues or making their enemies victorious.  Neither the people nor God seem mature enough for marriage.

In other biblical passages, God’s love is more like a good parent’s devotion.

            For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu

            And from Egypt I called to my son …  (Hosea 11:1)

ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.

Similarly, the second book of Isaiah recalls a time when God was kind to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites.

            And [God] said: “Surely they are my people,

            Children who do not betray.”

            And [God] became their rescuer.  (Isaiah 63:8)

            … In ahavah and compassion, [God] redeemed them,

            Plucked them up and carried them all the days of old.

            But they, they rebelled

            And pained [God’s] holy spirit.

            And [God] turned against them as an enemy;

            [God] made war against them.  (Isaiah 63:9-10)

Then the people of Judah yearn to come home again to an affectionate “father” who is devoted to their welfare. They recall that:

            “… You, God, are our father,

            Our redeemer of old …  (Isaiah 63:16)

*

Why do we read The Song of Songs during Passover?  The Passover seder retells the story of God taking the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  We repeat God’s promise:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:7)

This could mean taking the Israelites as a metaphorical wife; the bible sometimes uses the word “take” (lakach, לָקַה) to mean have intercourse with or marry.  But it could also mean God adopts the Israelite slaves and their fellow-travelers out of compassion, as if they are children who need special care.  Then God treats them with affection and devotion, the ahavah of a parent—at least until they reject God and worship other gods.

Is there anything in The Song of Songs to connect human sensual desire with God’s ahavah?  I found one hint.  Three times in The Song of Songs, the erotic poetry is interrupted by this verse:

            I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,

            By deer or by gazelles of the field:

            Do not rouse or lay bare ahavah until it pleases!  (The Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4)

The female speaker is warning her friends not to rush into consummating a sexual attraction; wait until the ahavah is ripe.  She does not say what a ripe love is.  A more overpowering attraction?  Or a fuller relationship with the beloved that includes tenderness, friendship, affection, and devotion, as well as carnal desire?  For human beings, physical ahavah and spiritual ahavah are often inseparable.

May each of us find ahavah in our lives, whether it is passionate desire or affectionate devotion.  And may each of us learn how to turn toward the world with an open heart and ahavah.

  1. The Song of Songs 4:5, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 8:10.
  2. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  3. Hosea 2:18-22.
  4. See Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:3-14, and Second Isaiah 54:4-10 and 62:5.
  5. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE), quoted in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.
  6. Maimonides, a.k.a. Moses ben Maimon or Rambam (12th century CE), Mishnah Torah, I: The Book of Knowledge, 10:3, Laws Concerning Repentance.
  7. For example, see Malachi 1:2.

Pesach: Changing Four Sons

April 16, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

The wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask.

These are the “Four Sons” in the haggadah (הַגָּדָה = The Telling), the guide to the Passover/Pesach seder.  Even haggadot that leave out many traditional sections still include the Four Sons (or in modern versions, Four Children) and label them that way.  If you go to a Pesach seder this Friday evening, you will encounter them.

Yet these four types of children have only a tenuous connection with the story of the exodus from Egypt in the Torah.  And telling that story is what Pesach is all about.

pesach (פֶּסַח) =  the animal sacrifice for Passover, the festival of Passover.  Plural: pesachim (פְּסָחִים).

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.  Three of these instructions are preceded by a hypothetical question from a child.

But the answers in the haggadah are different from the answers in the Torah.  By about 200 CE the Jewish community in Babylon had labeled the sons in the four passages and changed the answers to be given by their fathers.

“The Four Sons” Pesach tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael.1  Who knows, maybe even Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was the one who invented this section in the second century CE, and it became popular after his students recorded it.  The passage begins:

Four Sons in French haggadah, 1880’s

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

A parental answer follows for each type of son.

Is it possible to combine the four explanations for children in the Torah with the Four Sons found in the Mekhilta and all traditional haggadot?  Here is my attempt.

 

The “Wise” One

The question of the first child comes from the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim:

If your son asks you in the future, saying: “What are the terms and the decrees and the regulations that God, our God, has commanded you?”  Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand …  And then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, to keep us alive as on this day.”  (Deuteronomy 6:20-21, 6:24)

For about 1,800 years the haggadah has applied the child’s question to the rules of the Pesach seder:

Breaking off the afikoman

What does the wise son say?  “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that God, our God, commanded us?”  You, likewise, open to him with the Pesach rule: “Nothing should be eaten after the Pesach afikoman.”2

Later haggadot say the parent should tell the child all the rules of Pesach, including the one that nothing must be eaten after the afikoman.  Although in the Torah this child says “commanded you”, the Mekhilta rewrites his question as “commanded usin order to make the boy look better.

Answering the child’s question in the context of Deuteronomy 6:20-25 would be a bootless enterprise.  If you responded with every rule in the Torah and how it is applied, both you and the child would fall asleep long before you could finish the task.  You could limit your list to the rules of the Pesach seder, including the afikoman; but why not bring up each rule when you actually apply it during the evening?

I recommend saying: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand.  So if we are wise we obey God’s rules, in awe and gratitude, and for our own good.  Because here we are, alive today!”  (Deuteronomy 6:21-24)

 

The “Wicked” One

The question of the second child comes from the book of Exodus/Shemot:

Take for yourselves an animal from the flock for your families and slaughter the pasach.  And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and daub it on the lintel and the two doorposts …  And God will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pasach over the entrance …  And when your children say to you: “What is this service to you?”  Then you shall say: “It is a pasach slaughter for God, who pasach the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our households.”  (Exodus/Shemot 12:21-23, 12:26-27)

pasach (פָּסַח) = (verb) limped, skipped; (noun) an alternate spelling of pesach (פֶּסַח).

In context, the children are asking about the service of daubing blood on the outside frame of the front door, to commemorate the action in the book of Exodus.  (Although pesach animals were slaughtered annually at the temple in Jerusalem until the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there is no evidence to date other than this passage in Exodus that the daubing of blood around doors was ever re-enacted.)

But the Mekhilta completely changes the meaning of the children’s question:

What does the wicked son say?  “What is this service to you?”—to you, and not to him.  Because he disassociated himself from the congregation and denied the foundation, you, likewise, blunt his teeth and tell him: “Because of this [that] God did for me when I went out of Egypt.”  For me and not for you.  Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.

The father’s reply here sounds to me as if the questioner is not “the wicked son”, but “the son whose father hates him”.

The father makes the “wicked son” look bad by correctly quoting “What is this service to you?” and leaping to the conclusion that “to you” means the boy is disassociating himself from his parents and from other Jews.

This is a prejudiced assumption.  Perhaps the child is merely expressing curiosity about a particular Pesach service and its meaning to an adult.  The service in question is what the Israelites did in Egypt the night before they were freed: slaughtering a sheep or goat and daubing its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the front door.

I recommend answering: “Thanks to that service, God “skipped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our houses.  (Exodus 12:27)   And that is why we call this week Passover; the Hebrew name, Pesach, means skipped over.”

 

The “Simple” One

The third child’s question appears in Exodus after the instructions to sacrifice every firstborn male animal in the herd and flock to God, in commemoration of the tenth and final plague in Egypt.  A firstborn donkey is redeemed with a sheep sacrificed in its place.  The firstborn son of each human mother is also dedicated to God.

Death of the Firstborn, haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

But every firstborn human among your sons you shall redeem.  And when your son asks you in the future, saying: “What is this?”  Then you shall say to him: “By strength of hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  And when Pharaoh hardened against sending us out, then God killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of humans to the firstborn of livestock.  Therefore I am slaughtering for God every male womb-opener, but every firstborn of my sons I must redeem.”  (Exodus 13:14-15)

The Mekhilta takes the question out of context and shortens the answer:

What does the simple son say?  “What is this?”  And you shall tell him: “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

The best answer depends on what the simple child cannot find the words to describe.  If “this” is the Pesach seder, it suffices to answer: “This is the way we tell the story of how God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.”

But what if the child has qualms about God’s tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn?  I recommend reassuring your child (or your inner child) by explaining: “That was a miracle in the story.  Moses told our ancestors to commemorate it by sacrificing the firstborn of each cow, sheep, or goat at the altar, but to redeem every firstborn son by giving something different to God instead.  (Exodus 13:15)  Today we give money in honor of the firstborn.”

 

The Speechless One

Exodus tells the father what to say to his son about the festival of matzah without including any prompting question.

Seven days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day will be a festival for God.  Matzah shall be eaten for seven days, and nothing leavened shall be seen with you, and no sourdough shall be seen with you, throughout all your territory.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:6-8)

Modern biblical scholars suspect that there was already a festival of matzah in the spring, before the first grain harvest, and the Torah absorbed the pre-existing festival into the Pesach observance.4

Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to explain the presence of matzah and the absence of leavened food during the week of Pesach in terms of the exodus.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  So does the Mekhilta:

And he who does not know how to ask, you open for him, as it is written: “And you shall tell your son on that day, etc.”

Like the answers for the “wicked” child and the “simple” child, the invented “son who does not know how to ask” gets an answer that ignores the point of the corresponding passage in the Torah—in this case instructions for the festival of matzah.

I recommend telling the speechless child: “For seven days we eat matzah, and avoid any baked goods with leavening.  Why do we do this?  For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.  (Exodus 13:6-8)  That’s what it says in the Torah, but what do you think it means?”  In this way you may encourage your child to ask questions and generate possible answers.

*

Pesach is when we must tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in a way that engages our children and the “children” inside us.  In order to do that, we can combine the traditions with our own creativity.  The Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim gives examples of spur-of-the moment alternatives to traditional sections.5  But if you would like to plan some alternatives in advance, you are welcome to use this blog post as a starting point.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators and redactors. The rules and customs of Passover in the Mekhilta were probably written in the early third century CE, about the same time as Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nasi collected the mishnah of the Talmud.  The fours sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael. They are all from 13:14.
  3. The afikomen is the final course or dessert of the Passover meal, consisting of half a piece of matzah separated and hidden early in the ritual.
  4. The only reason given in Exodus for observing the festival of matzah during Pesach is the sentence: “And they baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, flat rounds of matzah, because it had not leavened, because they were driven out from Egypt and they could not delay. They did not even make provisions for themselves.”  (Exodus 12:39)  But the Israelites have two week’s notice, and their only leaven is sourdough starter, which never runs out as long as a little is saved from each batch of bread.
  5. For example, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115b: “Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table before him, and he said to those removing it: “We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us?”  Rabba said to him: “You have exempted us from reciting the questions of ‘Why is this night different’, as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.”  (Translation from www.sefaria.or/Pesachim 115b.)

 

Metzora & Habakkuk: Torn Houses

April 10, 2019 at 9:26 pm | Posted in Habakkuk, Metzora | Leave a comment

Metzora

When a priest diagnoses the skin disease tzara-at in a human being, that person is isolated from family, community, and God’s sanctuary, and must live outside the camp or town.  (See last week’s post, Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick.)  Tzara-at is also the name of a green or red mark that appears and grows in fabric or leather, requiring the article to be burned.

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“someone with tzara-at”) applies the name tzara-at to an infection (probably mold) in the walls of a house.   But how do you remove a house from society?

When the owner of the house sees something that looks like a mark of tzara-at, he must inform a priest.

Green mold

And he will see the mark, and hey! [if] the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, thin-greens or blood-reds, and appears deep in the wall, the priest shall go out from the bayit to the entrance of the bayit, and he shall close up the bayit for seven days.  (Leviticus/Vayikra  14:37-38)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building; household (consisting of family and servants living together).

Seven days is also how long a priest must quarantine a human tentatively diagnosed with tzara-at before a re-examination.

The priest shall return on the seventh day, and he shall look, and hey! [if] the mark in the walls of the bayit has spread, then the priest shall give an order, and they shall take out the stones that are in the marked part, and throw them away outside the town in a ritually impure place.   (Leviticus 14:39-40)

Members of the household must also scrape off and throw away the clay or whitewash1 coating the stones inside the house.  Then they can rebuild that section of the wall with new stones and a new coating.

But if the mark returns and spreads in the bayit after taking out the stones and after hiketzot the house and after re-coating, then the priest shall come and look, and hey!  [if] the mark has spread in the bayit, it is tzara-at from a hurt in the bayit; it is ritually impure.  And he shall demolish the bayit …  (Leviticus 14:43-45)

hiketzot (הִקְצוֹת) = scraping?  tearing apart?  (Probably a defective hifil form of the verb katz, קוץ = tore apart.)

In an earlier post, Metzora: A Diseased Family, I suggested that since the word bayit means a household as well as a house, tzara-at of a house might represent a serious malfunction in the household that lives there.  Then if replacing an obviously diseased part of the family’s life does not solve the problem, the household should be disbanded.

Habakkuk

Bayit can also mean the household of a king.  The prophetic poetry of Habakkuk may include a reference to the tzara-at of an imperial household.

The book of Habakkuk is set in the late 7th century BCE., after the Neo-Babylonian Empire had conquered much of the Ancient Near East, including the northern kingdom of Israel, and made Judah a vassal state.  It was written shortly before the Babylonian army marched on Jerusalem in 598 BCE.Part of Habakkuk’s prophecy addresses the king of Babylon:

           Since you gutted many nations

            All the remaining peoples shall gut you

            for the bloodshed of humans and the violence to the land,

            The city and all who dwell in it.  (Habakkuk 2:8)

Rashi2 wrote that “the violence of the land” means the violence done to the land of Israel, and that the city in the next line is Jerusalem.  Habakkuk did live in Judah, so this interpretation fits the prophet’s frame of reference.

          Hoy!3  Who is cutting off a cut-off slice,4

           [Bringing] evil to his own bayit

           To set his nest on high?  (Habakkuk 2:9)

The king in Babylon (probably Nabopolassar, regnant 658-605 BCE) is not bringing evil to the stones of the palace building.  He is corrupting his household, including his son, general, and successor, Nebuchadnezzar II (regnant 605-562 BCE).

           Your plan has shamed your own bayit,

           Ketzot many peoples,

           And your soul was guilty.  (Habakkuk 2:10)

ketzot (קְצוֹת) = feeling disgust; tearing apart.  (A form of the verb katz, probably related to hiketzot in Leviticus 14:43 above.)

Rashi wrote that the shameful thing the ruler of Babylon plotted was to “strip and peel” many peoples, as in the treatment of walls in Leviticus 14:43.

           For a stone from a wall will cry an alarm,

           And a wooden rafter will answer:

           Hoy!  Who builds a town through bloodshed

           And founds a city through injustice?  (Habakkuk 2:11-12)

Images in poetry often refer to several things at once.  Here the parts of a house cry out when the house is being torn apart, like the house in this week’s Torah portion in which the disease of tzara-at reappeared.

But the countries that the Babylonians have been tearing apart are also crying out.  And if the injustice perpetrated by the king of Babylon’s household is the evil brought home to roost in Habakkuk 2:9, as well as the shame and guilt in verse 2:10, then the stone and the rafter respond as if they are the soul and conscience of the royal family crying out in alarm.

In Habakkuk, God promises that eventually the rulers from Babylon will be overturned.

           You shall be sated with dishonor rather than glory …

           The cup in the right hand of God will come around to you,

            And disgrace instead of your glory.  (Habakkuk 2:16)

The royal line of kings from Nabolpolasser to Nebuchadnezzar and four kings after him ended in 539 BCE, when Cyrus I expanded his Persian Empire by conquering Babylon.  Elsewhere the Hebrew Bible claims that God sent Cyrus to rescue the Jews from Babylonian rule.5  Cyrus ruled his empire with a lighter hand, giving a measure of autonomy to local regions and letting deportees such as the Jews in Babylon return home and rebuild their temples.

*

Ancient Israelites and classic Torah commentators believed that some diseases are a divine punishment for bad behavior.  Today some people still see physical disease as an expression of a psychological issue, though as medical science advances fewer and fewer diseases are classified as psychosomatic.  Neither white patches of skin nor mold in the walls is caused by negative thoughts.

But poetry can use the imagery of unnatural patches of skin, and creeping mold in walls, to convey truths about the psyche.  Habakkuk transmits God’s message that rulers bent on conquest regardless of the price in terms of the destruction of human lives or the devastation of the land may build their “nest in the heights”, but the evil they do will infect their own household—their own ruling family and its confederates—with a disease of the soul.

Habakkuk adds that eventually God will bring down the Babylonian empire.  I would add that those who rule without regard for justice, the suffering of human beings, or the plight of the earth cannot experience real happiness or meaning in life.  As we rant against such a ruler and his collaborators our own time, may we also feel pity for those with diseased souls.

  1. The bible uses the word eifer (אֵפֶר) for the material coating the stones. Usually eifer means dust, ashes, or fine dirt. As a wall coating, it might be clay refined from dirt, or whitewash made with lime from ashes of animal bones.
  2. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi ShlomohYitzchaki.
  3. The biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) means the same as the Yiddish interjection Oy: a combination of “Oh!”, “Woe!”, “Oh no!”, and a deep sigh.
  4. “Cutting off a slice” is a biblical idiom for enriching oneself by cheating.
  5. Jeremiah 29:10, Ezra 1:1, Isaiah 45:1-3.

 

Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick

April 3, 2019 at 2:50 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tazria | 1 Comment

Tazria

Four men with tzara-at plunder an empty tent in 2 Kings 7:8

Instructions for diagnosing the biblical skin disease of tzara-at (צָרַעַת) fill most of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  The end of the portion finally says what happens to people who have tzara-at.

And the person marked with tzara-at, his clothes shall be torn and his head [of hair] shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his lips, and he shall call out: “Tamei!”  All the days that the mark is on him he shall be continually tamei.  Alone he shall dwell; outside the camp is his dwelling-place.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tamei (טָמֵא) = contaminated, ritually impure, unfit for worshiping God.

Jewish mourners still tear clothing

Torn clothes, wild hair, and covered lips are all signs of mourning in the Hebrew Bible.1  People afflicted with tzara-at are not dead.  But like those who mourn a family member’s death, they mourn their separation from those they love. They can no longer live together, or even come within touching distance.  Calling out “Tamei” keeps people away, since the condition of being tamei (though not the skin disease itself) is contagious.  Being tamei also prevents people with tzara-at from approaching God in the sanctuary courtyard.

Once a priest diagnoses tzara-at, the person with the disease is isolated from the camp, the community, and the service of God.  The isolation may not be permanent; next week’s Torah portion, Metzora, includes the rituals for removing the tamei status of those who have recovered from tza-arat and reintegrating them back into the community.  Later in the bible are examples of two people healed by divine intervention,2 four men who do not expect they will ever recover,3 and a king who has tzara-at until he dies.4

The Psalms never mention tzara-at, but two psalms consider the anguish of someone with a serious disease—not because of pain, but because of isolation.

Psalm 38

The bible generally assumes that disease is a punishment God inflicts when one has done the wrong thing.  The speaker in Psalm 38 declares:

          There is no sound spot in my flesh thanks to your curse,

                        There is no peace in my bones thanks to my error.

            For my crimes pass through my head

                        Like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.         

            My wounds are making a stench

                        Through my own folly.  (Psalm 38:4-6)

After complaining about a twisted body, burning guts, numbness, a violent heartbeat, and weakness, the speaker brings up another problem:

           My loving ones and my friends stand apart from my affliction;

                       Those who are close to me stand meirachok.  (Psalm 38:12)

Job, his Wife and his Friends. by William Blake, ca. 1785

meirachok (מֵרָחֺק) = at a distance, from away, staying far away.  (A form of the verb rachak, רָחַק = was distant, drifted away from, kept far away.)

In the book of Job, the afflicted person’s “comforters” cluster around to tell him his sickness is his own fault, since God only sends disease to those who have sinned.  In Psalm 38, the speaker believes the sickness is a well-deserved punishment, but the speaker’s friends stay away.

Meanwhile, the speaker’s enemies plot to take advantage of his illness, and the speaker is unable to hear or rebuke them.  The only one left to listen to an appeal is God.

           Because for you, God, I have hoped.

                        You will answer me, my master, my God.

            Because I thought: “Lest they rejoice over me

                        When my foot staggers, magnify themselves over me!”

            For I am certainly stumbling,

                        And my anguish is in front of me always.  (Psalm 38:16-17)

The psalm ends:

           Do not give up on me, God!

                        My God, do not tirechak from me!

            Hasten to my aid,

                        My master, my rescuer.  (Psalm 38:22-23)

tirechak (תִּרְחַק) = you stay distant, you keep away.  (Another form of the verb rachak.)

The speaker is isolated from friends and family, who therefore cannot provide comfort; isolated from enemies, who scheme outside the speaker’s hearing range; and isolated from God, who does not seem to be present.

Psalm 88

Psalm 88 opens with a sick person’s plea to God.    

            May my prayer come before you,

                        Stretch out your ears to my cry!

            Because my living body is sated with bad things;

                        And my life has reached the brink of death.

            I am counted among those who go into the pit.

                        I have become a strongman without strength.  (Psalm 88:3-5)

This speaker blames God—who made him sick—for isolation from friends.

           Hirechakta from me those who know me;

                       You make me abhorrent to them;

                        Imprisoned, I cannot go out.  (Psalm 88:9)

hirechakta (הִרְחַקְתָּ) = you removed to a distance, you kept (something) far away.  (Another form of the verb rachak.)

Then the sick person offers God a motivation for healing, pointing out that only the living can praise God.

           Do you do wonders for the dead?

                        Do ghosts rise and praise you?  (Psalm 88:10)

Yet the speaker remains isolated from God as well.

           Why, God, do you reject me,

                        Do you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 88:15)

The psalm ends with the pain of isolation.

          Hirechakta my loving ones and my friends from me,

                        Those who know me—[into] darkness.  (Psalm 88:19)

The worst thing about death is that it cuts off any possibility of communication, with humans or with God.5

*

Some people today have visible diseases, irregularities, or deformities, like the people with tzara-at in the bible.  Although we no longer have a law isolating them, it is human nature to stare—or to carefully avoid looking at them.  Meeting their eyes, smiling, and starting a normal conversation is harder, especially when the defect is on the face.  Doing so anyway is the only ethical approach; yet because humans are weak and easily spooked, these people still suffer isolation.

Others today have invisible diseases; I am one.  Reading Psalms 38 and 88 brings tears to my eyes.  I can pass for healthy, and engage in society and communal worship like a healthy person (except that I cannot make a living because I’d need too many sick days, and I have to pace my activities to prevent exhaustion).  I am grateful that I am not isolated from human company, and I have dear family and friends.

But with my whole heart I can speak or chant those words begging God: “Do not give up on me!  Hasten to my aid!  Why do you hide your face from me?”

I do not believe God afflicts us with physical problems as a punishment for disobedience or wrongdoing.  Sometimes, in our misery, we expand our own set of physical problems with unwise behaviors.  On the other hand, we may benefit from new scientific knowledge that repairs some of the things that go wrong in our bodies.

Nevertheless, I know that often bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.  There is no divine justice for individuals.                        

Then why do we beg God to heal us?  Why do we fix our hope on God?                                

Who else is there?      

  1. Mourners customarily tear their clothes in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11, leave their hair loose and disheveled in in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11 and Ezekiel 24:17, and cover their lips in Ezekiel 24:17.
  2. The bible only records healing from tzara-at when there is divine intervention. In Numbers 12:10-15 God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at and then heals her.  In 2 Kings 5:1-11, the prophet and miracle-worker Elisha heals General Na-aman of tzara-at.
  3. 2 Kings 7:3-16. The four men with tzara-at must stay outside the city walls even when the enemy is approaching to attack the city.
  4. 2 Kings 15:5. King Azaryah lives in an isolated house while his son Yotam does the king’s business in the palace and on the battlefield.
  5. Walter Brueggemann points out in The Message of the Psalms, Augburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 79: “This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. ‘The Pit’ [see Psalm 88:5] is not final judgment or a fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything.” I would amend this statement to say communion, with both human beings and God, is everything.

(P.S. I am transferring my domain name today.  Future posts will be e-mailed to everyone following my blog, as before.  Thank you, subscribers!)

Shemini, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, & Psalm 131: Silenced

March 27, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | Leave a comment

Something shocking happens after the first priests, Aaron and his four sons, consecrate the new altar in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”).1

The Two Priests Are Destroyed, by James Tissot

Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his fire-pan and he put embers on it and he placed incense on it.  And they brought alien fire in front of God, which [God] had not commanded them [to do].  And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “It is what God spoke, saying:  Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-3)

vayidom (וַיִּדֺּם) = he was silent, he became quiet; he was motionless.  (A form of the verb damam, דָּמַם = was silent, quiet, still, motionless.2)

Why do Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into the new tent-sanctuary?  Why did Moses tell Aaron, who has just watched his sons die, that God said, “Through those close to me, I will be proven holy”?  Why is Aaron is silent and still?

I have offered some speculations in previous blog posts.  (See Shemini: Fire Meets Fire and Shemini: Mourning in Silence.)  This year I wondered why Aaron’s silence continues beyond the initial shock of the catastrophe.  Does guilt tie his tongue?  Is he too exhausted or frightened to make a move, except to obey an order?  Or is it possible that he has a moment of enlightenment?

  • After the first shock, Aaron might be unable to move or make a noise because he is overwhelmed by guilt.  Maybe he set a bad example when he made an alien idol, the golden calf.  Maybe he should have stopped Nadav and Avihu the instant when they filled their fire-pans.  Maybe God is punishing him for doing the wrong thing.
  • After the first shock, he might remain silent at some signal from his brother Moses.  As soon as Moses has arranged for Aaron’s cousins to remove the bodies, he orders Aaron and his two surviving sons to refrain from mourning.3  Aaron obediently remains silent until a question comes up about an animal offering; then he has recovered enough to take initiative again.4
  • After the first shock, Aaron might realize that no one is safe, not even Moses’ family.  He did not survive the episode of the golden calf because he was Moses’ brother, but merely because God had another plan.  God chose all four of his sons to serve as priests, then killed two of them on their first day of service.  This is life, and anything can happen.  In a moment of non-attachment, Aaron waits quietly for whatever happens next.

All three of these attitudes can be expressed with silence, as we see in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalm 131.

Jeremiah and Guilt

In the book of Jeremiah, God declares through the prophet that all the people of Jerusalem will die because they are guilty of persistent wrongdoing.  At one point, Jeremiah interrupts:

Fortress on a Hill, by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1546

Why are we sitting here?

Let us gather and enter fortified towns, venidmah there.

For God, our God, hadimanu,

And has made us drink venom,

Because we offended God. (Jeremiah 8:14)

venidmah (וְנִדְּמָה) = and we will be still and wait.  (Another form of the verb damam.)

hadimanu (הֲדִמָּנוּ) = has silenced us.  (Also a form of damam.)

Jeremiah repeatedly declares that the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem will succeed because God is punishing the people for their sins.  They are guilty, so they must be silent.

Ezekiel and Obedience

Moses tells Aaron and his surviving sons that priests may not bare their heads or tear their clothing even if a close family member dies.  All the other Israelites can wail and mourn, but not the holy priests.

Mourning is also silenced in the book of Ezekiel, a prophet from a family of priests (who would be priest himself if the Babylonians had not deported him from Jerusalem).  Ezekiel reports that God told him:

Ezekiel (with head-dress), by Michelangelo

Human, I am here taking away from you by pestilence what is precious in your eyes.  And you may not beat the breast, nor wail, nor shed a tear.  Groan in dom.  You may not do mourning rites for the dead.  You shall tie on your head-dress and put your sandals on your feet, and you may not cover your lips, and you may not eat the bread of other men.  (Ezekiel 24:16-17)

dom (דֺּם) = silence.  (From the verb damam.)

Ezekiel’s wife dies that night, and he obeys God’s orders.  When the Jews in his community in Babylon ask him why he is not mourning, Ezekiel replies that this is how they should act when the temple in Jerusalem falls and the sons and daughters they left behind die by the sword.  Like priests, they must not exhibit mourning even when God lets their beloved city and their children perish.

However, they must also remember their guilt.

… you shall not beat the breast and you shall not wail.  But you shall rot in your crimes, and you shall moan, each man to his brother.  (Ezekiel 24:23)5

Psalm 131 and Acceptance

After Nadav and Avihu die, Aaron is silent and motionless, a powerless man with nothing to do but wait.

Quiet acceptance is the theme of Psalm 131, a short poem translated here in full:

A song of ascents for David.

            God, my heart is not haughty

            And my eyes are not arrogant.

            I have not gone after greatness

            Or wonders too difficult for me.

            I have found equilibrium vedomamti my soul.

            Like a weaned child on its mother,

            Like a weaned child is my soul.

            Wait, Israel, for God

            From now until forever.  (Psalm 131:1-3)

vedomamti (וְדוֹמַמְתִּי) = and I have made quiet.  (Also a form of the verb damam.)

The speaker is humble, not striving to achieve.  He or she is weaned from attachment and dependence, and has found equilibrium6 and an inner state of peace and quiet.  Such a person can wait patiently for God to manifest.

*

Does Aaron become a quiet and humble man after God devours his two older sons?  Does he reach a state of peaceful non-attachment?  Perhaps; when God says Aaron must die without entering the “promised land”, Aaron, unlike Moses, does not make a fuss.7

What would it take for your soul to become quiet and peaceful after a disaster?

  1. See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.
  2. Some translators distinguish between damam I, which refers to silence and stillness, damam II, which refers to quiet sobbing or murmuring, and damam III, which refers to being destroyed or perishing. I believe this distinction is unnecessary.  A word indicating silence and stillness can also indicate a noise that is barely audible, like the “still, small voice” (demamah, דְּמָנָה) of God in 1 Kings 19:12.  And every time a word with the root damam has been translated as being devastated or perishing, it appears in a poetic passage that easily accommodates a translation in terms of silencing or stopping all motion. (See Psalm 31:18 and Jeremiah 25:37, 48:2, 49:26 and 50:30, and 51:6.)
  3. Leviticus 10:5-6.
  4. Leviticus 10:16-20.
  5. The translation of וּנְמַקֺּתֶם בַּעֲוֹנֺתֵיכֶם as “and you shall rot in your crimes” comes from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019.
  6. Shiviti (שִׁוִּתִי) = I have leveled, I have made even, I have equated. Therefore my translation here is “I found equilibrium”.
  7. Both men are doomed to die outside the “promised land” of Canaan in Numbers 20:12, although Moses is the one who shouts the words God finds offensive. Aaron quietly dies on Mt. Hor in Numbers 20:23-28.  Moses complains about God’s decree in Deuteronomy 3:23-6.

Esther: Stupid Decisions

March 19, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Purim, a Jewish holiday on the 14th of Adar (March 20-21 this year), revolves around the book of Esther, an imaginative farce set in Shushan, one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (553-333 BCE).

The real kings of this empire were smarter than the average dictator.  The founder, Cyrus I, encouraged the fealty of the many ethnic groups in his lands by granting them local autonomy and helping them rebuild their old temples.  Darius I recruited administrators and soldiers from many ethnic groups.  His son Xerxes I (reign 486-465 BCE), called Achashveirosh in the book of Esther, continued these astute policies of cultural and religious tolerance, making it easier to rule the world’s biggest empire to date.

Persian Empire ca. 500 BCE

The real King Achashveirosh/Xerxes also successfully crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon.  He built gigantic palaces in two of his five capital cities, Persepolis and Susa/Shushan.  He kept a large harem but had only one queen, a Persian noblewoman named Amestris.  Xerxes seems to have been a competent political leader with a taste for the standard royal luxuries.

But in the book of Esther, King Achashveirosh is, above all, stupid.  His stupid decisions drive a plot of near-catastrophes and amazing reversals.

On the evening of Purim we read and perform the book of Esther, enjoying every comic moment.  Late the next afternoon there is a traditional seudah shlishit, a “third meal” which is supposed to be second in importance only to the seder meal on Passover.  Unlike the Passover seder, the Purim seudah has no ritual text.  But maybe this year it could be a time to discuss some of the stupid rulings the fictionalized king makes—and how easy it is to make similar errors today.

Persian gold drinking horn, 5th century BCE

The book of Esther opens with King Achashveirosh spending lavishly on a 180-day drinking feast for his administrators and noblemen, followed by a seven-day drinking feast for the entire male population of Shushan.

And the drinking was according to the dat: There is no constraint!  (Esther 1:8)

dat (דָּת) = (plural datim, דָּתִים) rule, law, regulation, edict, decree.  (From the Persian word data.)

The word dat is used only in biblical passages written after the Persian Empire took over the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its formerly Israelite territory circa 539 BCE.  Dat appears 20 times in the book of Esther.  During the course of the story, King Achashveirosh (who likes to drink) issues six new datim on impulse, without constraints such as getting information or thinking things over.

Dat 1

Persian Queen Atossa, crowned 522 BCE

On the seventh day, as the king was feeling good with wine, he said … to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king in her royal crown, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, since she was good-looking.  (Esther 1:11)

Vashti refuses.1  Achashveirosh is furious.

But the king spoke to the wise men … because this was the king’s practice, [to come] before all experts on dat and judgement.  (Esther 1:13)

Consulting legal advisors on what to do about this perceived insult from the queen seems like a wise and sensible move—as long as one has competent advisors.  King Achashveirosh has seven, but only one speaks: Memukhan, who declares that in order to prevent noblewomen throughout the empire from getting uppity, Vashti must be severely punished.  Memukhan proposes a new dat declaring that Vashti is dethroned, divorced, deprived of her land, and banned from the king’s presence.  Achashveirosh agrees with no further thought.

*

Today, when do we (or our rulers) act on impulse, following the lead of the first person to speak, without pausing to solicit other opinions?  Do we fail to express our own viewpoints when we are given the opportunity to speak?

Dat 2

After a while Achashveirosh misses Vashti.  The real Achaemenid kings chose all their queens from seven noble Persian families, but in the book of Esther the king’s servants suggest holding a beauty contest to pick the next queen.  Each of the many finalists would spend a night with the king.  Achashveirosh jumps on this idea without consulting his legal advisors, and issues a new dat declaring the contest and its procedures.   Eventually he chooses Esther, the adopted daughter of her uncle Mordecai, a Jew who “sits in the gate” of Shushan as a judge.

*

Today, when do we pick our romantic partners, business associates, or even presidents based on their looks and charm, without considering any possible consequences?

Dat 3

For no apparent reason, the king picks a self-centered man named Haman as his new viceroy, and orders everyone in the king’s gate to kneel and bow down with their faces touching the ground when Haman passes through.  In the Torah this is the position of humility before God—which might explain why Mordecai refuses to do it.

When the king’s other servants tell Haman that Mordecai is ignoring the dat about bowing because he is a Jew, Haman decides to wipe out all the Jews in the Persian Empire.

Then Haman said to King Achashveirosh: “There is a certain people, scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their datim are different from all [other] peoples’, and the datim of the king they do not follow.  So it is not suitable for the king to leave them in peace.”  (Esther 3:8)

Achashveirosh does not ask which group Haman is talking about.  He does not ask which of the king’s datim its members are violating, or why.  And as usual, he does not talk to anyone else to get another side of the story.  For someone unaccustomed to thinking, it is enough that these people are different.  Unlike the real kings of the Persian Empire, the Achashveirosh character is easily frightened by diversity.

*

When do we react with fear (or fear disguised as resentment) because certain people look  different, or speak a different first language, or adhere to a different religion?

Dat 4

Given the king’s usual blank state of mind, Haman’s simple scare tactic might be enough.  But the viceroy adds a bribe, promising to pay 10,000 silver disks into the royal treasury if the king commands the extermination of this unnamed people.  Without asking a single question, without thinking about justice or remembering his family’s tradition of religious tolerance, King Achashveirosh hands over his signet ring to Haman.

And scrolls were sent out by the hand of the runners to every single province of the king [with the order] to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all the Jews … on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder them.  A copy of the writing was to be given as a dat in every single province and shown to all the peoples, to be prepared for this day. (Esther 3:13-14)

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When do we abandon our identities, giving the equivalent of our signet rings to others, for financial reasons?  For other reasons that would not hold up to scrutiny?  Do we ever wonder if we are violating our own principles?

Dat 5

Mordecai begs Esther to intercede with the king.  Much drama ensues, with two intertwining plot lines.  Haman has just erected a stake for impaling Mordecai when he is forced to publicly honor the Jew for saving the king’s life.  Meanwhile Esther uses courage and cleverness to get Achashveirosh and Haman where she wants them.2

At her second private drinking feast for the king and his viceroy, Esther asks King Achashveirosh for her life and the lives of her people.

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand

“Because we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, to be exterminated!”  (Esther 7:4)

Still oblivious, the king asks her who ordered such a thing.

And Esther said: “The man, the oppressor and enemy, is this evil Haman!”  (Esther 7:6)

Achashveirosh believes her at once and, as usual, asks no follow-up questions.  He has Haman impaled on his own stake.  It is sheer good fortune that Esther is correct and Haman is indeed the malefactor.

When Esther asks the king to revoke the dat about killing Jews on the 13th of Adar, we learn about another standing rule:

… a writing that was written in the name of the king and sealed with the signet ring of the king, there is no way to reverse.  (Esther 8:8)

This dat would be ridiculous in a real government.  But it does express the truth that some actions have irrevocable consequences.  We insult someone, and the person never forgets it.  We make a mistake or pass a law that results in someone’s death, and nothing can bring the person back to life.

King Achashveirosh gives Mordecai his signet ring and invites him and Esther to write any new dat they like to compensate for the dat about exterminating Jews on the 13th of Adar.  A dat goes out giving Jews permission to kill anyone who tries to attack them on that day.

And in every province and in every city where the word and the dat of the king reached, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a drinking feast and a holiday.  And many of the peoples of the land pretended to be Jews, because terror of the Jews had fallen upon them.  (Esther 8:17)

Jews all over the empire attack and kill their enemies on the 13th of Adar.  There is no due process, no trials to establish guilt or innocence, no follow-up on anyone the Jews accuse who manages to escape.  Mob violence rules the day.  The king’s fifth new dat is an arguably stupid way to prevent a one-day genocide.

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When do we, like Achashveirosh, make excuses for violence perpetrated by people who have suffered from discrimination and persecution?  When do we, like Esther and Mordecai, use positions of power to improve the welfare of our own people without seeking justice for all people?

Dat 6

Achashveirosh tells Esther that the Jews of Shushan alone have killed 500 men in addition to Haman’s ten sons, and asks her if she has any other requests.

And Esther said: “If it please the king, may it be granted to the Jews in Shushan to do tomorrow as well the same as the dat of today, and may the ten sons of Haman be impaled on the stake.”  And the king said to have it done thus, and the dat was given out in Shushan …  (Esther 9:13-14)

The Jews of Shushan take this opportunity to kill another 300 men.

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Today, when do we agree to do something merely to please a person who dazzles us, without considering whether it is ethical?

The six new datim King Achashveirosh issues in the book of Esther illustrate that stupid decisions come from:

  • acting on impulse in moments of anger or fear,
  • taking one person’s word for something without checking,
  • not collecting enough information, and
  • failing to consider our own ethical principles.

Someday may we all learn to be smarter than King Achashveirosh.

  1. Midrash Rabbah Esther (commentary from the 6th to 11th centuries CE) said that Vashti’s refusal was justified because the king was ordering her to display herself wearing her crown and nothing else.
  2. Before Esther can speak to Achashveirosh, she must risk her life; there is already a dat that anyone who enters the king’s inner court without being summoned is put to death unless the king extends his golden scepter. Never mind if there is an imperial emergency; Achashveirosh does not want to be bothered by inconvenient news.  When do we disable ourselves by going into denial?  When do we make life more difficult by trusting someone who ignores facts to be in charge?
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